just reading
Reading Time: 7 minutes A fresco from Pompeii of a young woman reading. (Sailko, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! It’s Friday, and that means our attention turns to history. Specifically, we focus on a voice from the 1st century to see if they said anything about Jesus or Christianity during Jesus’ supposed lifetime.  This time around, that voice is female. Pamphile of Epidaurus wrote some excellent histories, so let’s see if any of them mention our topic of interest!

just reading
A fresco from Pompeii of a young woman reading. (Sailko, CC-SA.)

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we meet the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Everyone, Meet Pamphile of Epidaurus.

Pamphile of Epidaurus, La Wiki tells us, was active around the time of Emperor Nero. (He ruled between 54-68 CE.) She lived in Greece, as her name indicates; Epidaurus was a town in Southern Greece. Nowadays, it boasts some impressive ruins, including a gorgeous ancient theatre that still exists — and still delights tourists with its acoustics.

YouTube video

Uploaded by Andrew Coulson, October 3, 2011. A choir singing impromptu in the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Somehow, I knew I’d find videos like this. This sent happy ASMR-style chills down my whole body!

Like a lot of women in Ancient Rome, Pamphile was educated. She could read and write — and much better than the norm, it sounds like.

But we don’t know much else about her. A 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda says she’s from Epidaurus, which is where we get that idea. But a 9th-century Byzantine patriarch, Photios I, claimed she was Egyptian in his preface to a collection of her work.

There’s even some question about what kind of role her father or husband had in her work.

However, it’s hard to fathom a man of that time writing about the topics associated with Pamphile — or writing in the way that she did, or organizing her work as she did. One classical studies scholar, Dina Guth, says Pamphile “carves out for herself an unusual, and uniquely feminine, space as a historian.” And she sure did.

The Writing Style of Pamphile.

From what I’ve seen of women in Ancient Rome at least, women might have been basically educated in reading and writing, but they didn’t often achieve the education levels that would have allowed them to rival the literacy or rhetorical skills of men.

Accordingly, medieval sources writing about Pamphile — especially Photios — seem sure that she wrote in a very simplistic style and in a disorganized way, just listing topics as she thought of them rather than by any real categories. Photios wrote of her work thusly (quoted from here with thanks):

Pamphile lived with her husband, as she herself noted carefully in the preface to her Commentaries. She says that she began this historical work after living with him from childhood for thirteen years, and that she wrote what she learnt from her husband, not leaving his side for a day or even an hour, staying with him without break for thirteen years. She also wrote what she happened to hear from any of his visitors (for many people came to learn from him, as he had a very good name for his teaching) and in addition what she collected from books.

It’s not much, and we don’t know for sure that it’s accurate, but it sure paints quite a mental image! Photios continues:

She combined as much of this material into her Commentaries as she thought worthy of note and preservation, not dividing up each piece along the lines of its original design, but writing up each one at random, as she came across it. This was not, as she says, because she found it difficult to divide the material according to genre, but because she considered a mixture, an embroidery, more delightful and more enjoyable than material of only one genre.

According to that source, Photios also thought her writing style was “simple.”

That said, the stories she recorded became valuable histories later on.

What Pamphile Wrote, At Least As Far As We Can Suss Out.

We know of several for-sure works by Pamphile of Epidaurus, and we’re pretty sure about one other.

The for-sure work is her Historical Commentaries. It’s a 33-volume work about all kinds of people and events in Greek history. Numerous ancient historians across the Empire quoted it extensively and clearly considered its information about history and literature highly useful to them. Unfortunately, by Photios’ time only 8 of the 33 books survived. And now, none do. We possess only fragments of this work.

That Byzantine encyclopedia (the Suda) also says she wrote a 3-volume work called Epitome of Ctesias (about a royal doctor named Ctesias, active in the 300s BCE). She also wrote a bunch of other histories and whatnot, as well as two books intriguingly called, respectively, On Disputes (or On Controversies) and On Sex. Alas, none of these have survived.

The suspected work we think is hers is Treatise on Women Famous in War. This short Greek book provides brief accounts of fourteen famous women from ancient history. Ironically, this work alone has survived.

For a long time, nobody had any idea who’d written it. Then, in the 1990s, a classical scholar named Deborah Levine Gera eventually theorized that maybe Pamphile had. This theory makes a lot of sense. The book is organized (or rather, not organized) in the same way as the Commentaries as described by Photios, and its writing is as simplistic and plain as Photios describes Pamphile’s as being.

Here’s a reproduction of the Greek version of this work. Here are some English translations of it and some analysis in a book by Gera herself.

So Pamphile wrote quite a remarkable body of work. I wish more of it had survived!

Pamphile and Religion.

Since we don’t have much from Pamphile to analyze, this section will be brief.

The book about women passes along without judgment or comment the fact that its first subject, Semiramis, was apparently a demigoddess:

Semiramis. The daughter, as Ctesias says, of Derceto the Syrian goddess and a Syrian man. She was raised by Simmas, a servant of the king, Ninus. She was married to Onnes, a governor of the king and had [2] sons. When she captured Bactra with her husband, Ninus, who was already an old man, became acquainted with her and married her. She bore him a son, Ninyas. After Ninus’ death, she fortified Babylon with baked brick and bitumen and build the temple of Belus. She was conspired against by her son Ninyas and died, having lived for 6[2] years and ruled for 42. [Source]

Derceto doesn’t seem to be very well known; Theoi mentions her briefly in a quote from Exhortation to the Greeks by Clement of Alexandria, who was active in the late 2nd century CE. They also quote Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which asserts that she is a water-dwelling Babylonian mermaid goddess. Of Semiramis herself, we find her described at length in Theoi as well.

(Interestingly, a 19th century Christian minister, Alexander Hislop, decided that Semiramis was literally the Whore of Babylon. He also thought she was the wife of Nimrod, who is briefly described in Genesis 10 and elsewhere in the Bible. Later, Jack Chick would adopt that PIDOOMA guess.)

Other than that, we get tantalizing glimpses of place names from the New Testament in Pamphile’s work. The last account, of brave Onomaris, claims she is (or became) a Galatian. She possibly lived around the 4th century BCE.

If this book is indeed by Pamphile, then she appears to have been a pagan.

What Pamphile Didn’t Write.

Naturally, none of the 14 accounts in that book mention anything about Jesus or Christianity. And according to the Book of Acts in the New Testament, women did exist. (Sorry, I had to.)

The well-to-do dye merchant Lydia, for example, gets a nod in Acts 16 as the first documented convert to Christianity in all of Europe. In Romans 16, Paul mentions Phoebe as a deacon (or church leader) and trusted agent of his; he also mentions Junia, an apostle and “fellow Jew.” In Romans 17, he describes “a woman named Damaris” among his converts. Scholars think Acts was written between 80-110 CE. Thus, this book might be just a bit late for Pamphile, but still.

Regardless, there’s one more extremely damning fact here to know about Pamphile:

In the ancient world, two ancient (and almost certainly pagan) writers quoted her extensively in their own writing:

Then, we see two sources describing her work in the 9th and 10th centuries. Both sources are Christian. One source, Photius, is an extremely high-status Christian. We don’t know exactly who wrote the Suda, but we’re sure it’s a Christian. Thus, it would have been very much to either source’s benefit to have an ancient 1st-century source confirming their historical claims.

And yet no source mentions a word about Pamphile talking about Christians or Jesus in any way.

Grading Pamphile.

I find Pamphile an enigmatic and fascinating person. As Dina Guth has said, she really did carve out a uniquely feminine space for herself in history — and her contributions were considered invaluable by various later authors.

We know neither the birth nor death date of Pamphile, only that she was active around the rule of Nero. That puts her at the very earliest edges of Christianity as a sect.

However, the events that Christians usually claim happened for realsies were by then decades old: their rockstar Savior entering Jerusalem and causing a huge, nationwide ruckus, then dying and appearing to hundreds of his followers before floating away into the sky, before then kicking off all the miraculous events recorded in Acts (which is supposed to be the continuation of the Gospels).

Paul himself seems to have traveled extensively in Greece, and he claimed to have been in Athens in 51 CE. He even says he delivered a big speech there, which he thoughtfully recorded in Acts 17:22-31.

And of all these breathtaking events, Pamphile is entirely silent — as is corroborated by all the other later sources describing her work.

However, I had to knock a few points off because she was off in Greece, not Judea itself or Rome.

Thus, I grant Pamphile a B+. She’s a potent historical voice and placed to hear about anything resembling Christianity, and yet she clearly knew nothing whatsoever about any of the claimed events of the Gospels and epistles.

I really wish we had more of her work. We don’t know of too many other female historians in the ancient world, and it’s clear they contributed a unique viewpoint in their day. But now we know this one, and we shall not soon forget her.

NEXT UP: Calvinists have some ideas about why so many people think they’re awful people. We’ll check those out tomorrow — and see how accurate they are. See you then! <3

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...